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A Brief History of Stadium Naming Rights

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Purist fans decry corporate stadium naming-rights deals as another step in the crass commercialization of sports. Owners see the deals in a different light; a well-negotiated package can bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for a team. Sixty years ago, no one would have seen this debate coming. At the time, stadiums and arenas were mostly named after people or their geographic location, and now it's a bit unusual to see a stadium going by such a nondescript moniker. (Just look at the case last week when McAfee Coliseum in Oakland reverted back to its old name of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum; officials quickly advertised that the stadium's name was back up for corporate bids.)

So how did our stadiums become billboards capable of seating thousands of people? Here's a bit of history and a few choice anecdotes on the expensive, gaffe-filled world of stadium naming deals.

This Bud's To Blame

If you thought Anheuser-Busch's only advertising breakthroughs were Clydesdales and talking frogs, think again. In 1953, the brewery wanted to buy the naming rights for Sportsman's Park, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals, and rename the park "Budweiser Stadium." National League President Ford C. Frick wasn't so hot on naming a stadium after booze, but he allowed Augustus Busch to stick his family's surname on the park. The Cardinals opened the 1954 season in Busch Stadium. Anheuser-Busch quickly rolled out "Busch Bavarian Beer" to take advantage of this advertising. This Busch Stadium closed in 1966, but the Cardinals' two subsequent homes have kept the name. Busch Bavarian Beer morphed into what's now Busch and Busch Light, so thank Ford C. Frick and Stan Musial the next time you play beer pong with those suds.

The Astros Learned a Valuable Lesson

enron-field0.jpgWhen a team sells its naming rights to a corporation, even the mascots are crossing their fingers that nothing goes terribly and embarrassingly wrong during the life of the deal. Just ask the Houston Astros. The team thought it had pretty much taken care of naming its beautiful new stadium when it signed a 30-year, $100 million deal with a local energy company in 1999. The same company's CEO and chairman threw out the ballpark's first-ever ceremonial first pitch when the stadium opened in April 2000. As you may remember, Enron was the sponsor, and its disgraced leader Ken Lay tossed out that pitch. The Astros actually bought the naming rights back from Enron for $2.1 million after the energy giant's scandal and fall, and quickly sold them to Minute Maid for a rumored $100 million-plus over 28 years.

But they weren't alone. The Astros weren't the only team to suffer such a debacle. The Tennessee Titans couldn't have liked playing in Adelphia Coliseum after the cable company went bankrupt due to massive internal corruption. The Miami Dolphins and Florida Marlins thought they were getting a great deal when they sold the naming rights to Joe Robbie Stadium to Pro Player, a company you might remember for making sports-themed outerwear in the mid-90's that was very similar to Starter's but nowhere near as cool (at least not at my middle school). Pro Player was part of Fruit of the Loom, which liquidated the division as part of a 1999 bankruptcy episode. Unfortunately for Miami's teams, the stadium-naming deal was for a full decade, and the name Pro Player Stadium stuck until 2005.

It's Not Just Corporate Names That Can Embarrass You

The University of Missouri learned this one the hard way. When Mizzou opened its new basketball arena in 2004, it bore the name "Paige Sports Arena." The titular Paige was Elizabeth Paige Laurie, the daughter of Wal-Mart heiress Nancy Laurie and her husband Bill. The couple had donated $25 million to help build the arena. This name seemed like an odd but endearing gesture from ultra-rich parents, but it was a bit puzzling, particularly since Paige went to college at USC, not Missouri.

It turned out, however, that this wasn't the first time one of the Lauries had opened their wallet in a major way on a college campus. Later that year Paige's freshman-year roommate at USC revealed that Paige had paid her $20,000 to write Paige's papers and do other coursework at USC. The Laurie parents promptly returned the arena's naming rights to the university following this scandal.

Mizzou wasn't alone in this sort of embarrassment, though. Villanova's basketball arena, the Pavilion, was originally du Pont Pavilion in honor of John Eleuthere du Pont, a du Pont heir and philanthropist. This name sounded great when the arena opened in 1986, particularly since du Pont had helped fund the construction. It took a decidedly sinister turn in 1996, when du Pont, a paranoid schizophrenic, murdered Olympic wrestling gold medalist David Schultz. Following his conviction, the venue's name changed to just "the Pavilion."

Not All Companies Want Naming Rights

When the St. Louis Rams moved to town in 1995, they played the first half of their home slate in Busch Stadium while waiting for their new dome to open. The team then moved into the Trans World Dome, named after Trans World Airlines. Unfortunately TWA could lose money as quickly as the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams offense could score touchdowns, and in 2001 American Airlines bought TWA, which was bankrupt. American Airlines didn't want the naming rights to the stadium, though, so the dome picked up the generic name "Dome at America's Center" for a season before brokerage Edward Jones bought the rights in early 2002. Apparently American Airlines wasn't opposed to all naming-rights deals though; it now has its name emblazoned on two different NBA arenas, the homes of the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat.

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It Can Be a Huge Windfall

When the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium opens next season, it will probably be one of the biggest sports stories of the year. The $1.3 billion venue will feature 80,000 fans, the world's largest high-definition television display, and Tony Romo's infectious charms. What it doesn't yet have, though, is a name. Someone will eventually shell out for the naming rights, though, and they won't come cheap. It's rumored that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wants upwards of $1 billion for a 30-year naming-rights package. While Jones may not pull that sort of coin for his football cathedral, he's not going to take pocket change for it, either; even more conservative analysts estimate the stadium's name could fetch a 30-year deal for between $10-18 million a year.

If the Cowboys' new digs get a deal at the upper end of that range, the contract shatter the current record for stadium naming. Citigroup is forking over $400 million over 20 years to sponsor the Mets' new home after Shea Stadium closes this season (Citi Field). Jay-Z and his Nets will enjoy an equivalent deal when they move into their new home in Brooklyn, the Barclays Center.

Ethan Trex co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

See also...

5 College Bowls With Peculiar Corporate Sponsors
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How Sports Owners Made Their Money
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An Unofficial Guide to Life as a Ref
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All-Star Voter Fraud
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Quiz: Mr. Burns' Softball All-Stars
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Quiz: Where Are They Now? College Superstars
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The Bud Bowl: A Definitive History

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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